Saturday, August 29, 2009

Viking Pirates Attack!

You’ve got to wonder why this book is not called "Space Pirates." I mean, the lead characters are pirates. They raid, they sack, they pillage. Of course Vikings were sackers and looters, too. But “pirates” evokes that certain image that ties in well with Beam’s epic space fantasy.

Space Viking began as a four part serial in Analog from November 1962 to February 1963, and later that year was published as a Dell paperback (our celebrated cover). Dorchester, in collaboration with Wildside Press, reprinted this classic under the Cosmos imprint in 2008.

I love the original Dell wraps – a strong heroic spaceman ready for action, his hot-firing zapgun in hand, and his even cooler cool helmet seated low on his head to show he means business. And even better … the text of the story actually describes the lid!

This is an excellent SF cover. It’s evocative, descriptive, and exciting. The only thing missing from the cover (and the book) are the BEMS. All of the aliens are really descendants of Terra, that cool name for our boring little planet.

But Space Vikings isn’t that kind of story. It doesn’t deal with human-flesh eating creatures. It’s civilized, in that 1950s, early ‘60s double martini lunches way. Pillaging is an accepted way of life throughout the galaxy. In fact, Viking treasures are included in the Royal GNP, and welcome at spaceports that aren’t being invaded.

This creates an odd kind of morality which is considered by the characters quite superior to planets that prefer peace. Almost no pirate atrocity generates an emotional response. Aside from a brief display where the Viking leader has to keep a stiff upper lip upon seeing the carnage their nukes and invading forces wreak, the good guys are all rather blasé about the wholesale destruction of life and social and monetary structures they’ve caused. There’s no thought to whether the murders they commit are immoral. It’s empty of all emotion. Especially for Lucas Trask, whose goal of avenging his wife’s murder leads him to upset an entire galaxy. He literally destroys planets to build himself an empire from which the killer cannot escape.

Had Space Vikings been written today it would be an 1,800-page, three volume super-epic. Each off-camera action (and there are a number of important ones) would be described ad nauseum. That Space Vikings is a less-than-240-page single novel is to the reader’s benefit. The story speeds along. Of course major successes and changes happen far too easily; and all of the simple, casual yet galaxy-sweeping plans of the Vikings are always rousingly successful. But that doesn’t take away from enjoying the story. Much of this facile plot movement, of course, is a writer’s convention, used to squeeze a massive cosmic epic into a squat, rapid-fire paperback.

Very enjoyable, in a cool and detached way.

Beam's other SF offerings from the '60s include:

• Four-Day Planet
• Junkyard Planet (The Cosmic Computer)
• Little Fuzzy (Cosmos 2007)
• The Other Human Race (Fuzzy Sapiens)
• A Planet for Texans (Lone Star Planet)
• Uller Uprising
• Crisis in 2140

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Solid Shield Slays 'Em

I picked up this little gem for two reasons. One is fairly obvious, the cover. It’s not the sexiest painting, not the most evocative image. But that bold yellow color provides a stark backdrop for the death image and for the simple, brazen title.

The second reason is because of the word Shield. It reminded me of the television show on FX called The Shield. It’s about a greedy rogue cop who also is not above murdering to achieve his ends. Now, I didn’t think that the two were connected, but the surficial themes were similar enough to be of interest. Frankly, I hated The Shield. There seemed to be absolutely no redeeming qualities to Michael Chiklis’ character, even after they began watering him down following that first unpardonable act of murder.

Shield for Murder is a better presentation of these similar setups. Barny Nolan is a tough cop who’s not afraid to use his gun. In fact he likes using it. He’s a hard drinker and he’s vulgar and doesn’t get along with just about anyone, especially fellow detectives. There’s a lot of Andy Sipowicz in him.

Barny is not nearly as intelligent as Sipowicz, though, which is saying something, and definitely not as capable at his job. He’s got his demons, though. Lots of them. They weigh him down in everything he does. Now in his thirties, he’s a lost soul, not at home anywhere, angry all the time, looked down upon by swells and punks alike, and in desperate need of the soothing hand of love. Rather than being sappy, William McGivern delivers this story in the ratta-tat-tat noir staccato of 1950s argot. It’s a fast read and it’s damned enjoyable.

Putting all of his eggs in one basket, Barny latches on to singer Linda Wade, a pretty headliner at the Simba lounge in Philadelphia. If he could just have her his entire life – past, present and future – would be Jake. Of course he needs money for that, and a cop’s salary of $48 a week won’t get him a picket fence and a family. He decides to knock over Dave Feist, a neighborhood bookie who usually keeps a few grand on him. It’s not until after Barny guns down Feist in an alley that he finds six grand on him, and another $25 thousand wrapped in paper. Feist had said he had an appointment with Mike Espizito a mob capo. Barny figures the 25 large was for Espizito, a pay-off on a big bet.

Rather than turn in the money, or get it back to the mobster, Barny decides to keep it all. “To hell with the wop,” he says. He’s got enough finally to start on that life he’s been imagining. Trouble is Linda doesn’t love him, only feels sorry for his lost soul; a nosy reporter is onto him, as are the cops; and the mob has a score to settle, too. Barny can’t turn anywhere for help because he’s made enemies of everyone he’s ever met, and every turn he makes is a wrong one. He doesn’t know it, but he’s a walking dead man from the moment he pulled the trigger in that alley.

While not the finest example of terse noir writing, Shield for Murder is a very enjoyable read. Don’t spend a lot for it. I got my Very Good to Near Fine copy for four bucks. You don’t want to spend much more than that.

McGivern was a regular contributor to the lurid paperback field. His books often started out as hardcovers for Dodd, Mead. Shield for Murder began life in May 1951 as a hardcover and was reprinted a year later in April 1952 as Pocket Book’s 870th title.

Born in Chicago, McGivern grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and later served in the Army during WWII. He published nearly 30 novels, using his own name and the pseudonym Bill Peters, most of them mystery thrillers. Later in life he moved to Hollywood to write TV and movie scripts, his book writing having paved the way with several print to celluloid successes. Among these were The Big Heat – starring Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin, which started as a Saturday Evening Post serial and became an Edgar Award winner for Best Motion Picture – Rogue Cop, and Odds Against Tomorrow. Here is a partial listing of his published novels:

• But Death Runs Faster (1948)
• Heaven Ran Last (1949)
• Very Cold for May (1950)
• Shield for Murder (1951)
• Blondes Die Young (1952)
• The Crooked Frame (1952)
• The Big Heat (1953)
• Margin of Terror (1953)
• Rogue Cop (1954)
• The Darkest Hour (1954)(as Waterfront Cop in reprint)
• The Seven File (1956) (as Chicago-7 in reprint)
• Night Extra (1957)
• Odds Against Tomorrow (1957)
• Savage Streets (1959)
• Seven Lies South (1960)
• The Road to the Snail (1961)
• A Pride of Place (1962)
• A Choice of Assassins (1963)
• The Caper of the Golden Bulls (1966)
• Lie Down, I Want to Talk to You (1967)
• Caprifoil (1972)
• Reprisal (1973)
• Night of the Juggler (1975)
• Soldiers of ’44 (1979)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Jack Webb Surprise

There is nothing delicate about this darling! Whoo, boy!

Haven't read this one yet, but already there are a couple of suprises. The first one is in the story. Written in the hard-boiled era, you don't expect the lead character to be a priest. That's more for the drawing room set like Father Brown or McInerny's Father Dowling. Of course the lead character Father Shanley is cut out of matinee idol cloth and has a quick hard right, but he doesn't carry a gun, just a cross. His crime-solving partner, Jewish detective Sammy Golden, is the one with the gat.

Now don't get fooled like I did because the second surprise is that this isn't the same Jack Webb of Dragnet and Adam-12 fame. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that Jack Webb did write a novel, but I can't recall its title. (Wikipedia references The Badge, published in hardback in 1958 by Prentiss-Hall.)

The writer of this novel was born John Alfred Webb. According to a few other websites (gadetection and clerical detectives among them) Webb bounced around in his working life until he landed on writing. His main genre was Mystery, writing as Jack Webb and John Farr, but he also wrote a few westerns as Tex Grady. Of his approximately 15 books published between 1952 and 1963, 9 titles starred the cross-toting, right-fist-jabbing Father Shanley. Here's the list of them.

• The Big Sin (1952)
• The Naked Angel (1953)
• The Damned Lovely (1954)
• The Broken Doll (1955)
• The Bad Blonde (1956)
• The Brass Halo (1957)
• The Deadly Sex (1959)
• The Delicate Darling (1959)
• The Gilded Witch (1963)
Looks like most of the original paperback covers might have had lucious ladies prominently displayed. A temptation for any red blooded American Male, to be sure. But you've got to wonder how tempting, really, such delectable dolls would have been to the devout Shanley.

Great covers, though!